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Spin Control: With the results always ignored, Washington’s tax advisory measures may be dropped from the ballot

Washington’s 2018 state voter guide describes Advisory Vote No. 19, which asked voters if they supported or opposed a tax on oil brought to state refineries by pipelines. In the November election, 53.5% of voters said the tax should be repealed.  (Jonathan Brunt/The Spokesman-Review)

Washington voters were asked 38 times over the past 11 years whether they thought a tax the Legislature had passed earlier that year should be kept or repealed.

Some years, there are one or two such opportunities on the general election ballot for voters to offer their “advice” on changes to the tax code. Other years, there are a handful.

There were none last year, but the 2019 ballot held an even dozen chances on the ballot – in many locations filling all or most of a ballot’s front page because of a requirement they be given priority near the top, ahead of candidate races and constitutional amendments.

On 27 of those “advisory measures,” voters said the taxes should be repealed. Those measures were not brought up for re-examination in any of the following legislative session, regardless of whether both chambers were controlled by the Democrats or the two parties shared powers.

Based on that record, some may complain that legislators are ignoring the will of the voters. It might be better described, however, as a sign that legislators – like most of us – are unlikely to listen to advice they didn’t seek, particularly after they’ve already made a decision and are intent on moving on.

Those advisory votes are left over from a 2007 initiative, I-960, sponsored by prolific ballot measure entrepreneur Tim Eyman. Another portion of the initiative, and many would argue the main thrust, that required a two-thirds majority in both chambers to pass a tax increase was later removed by the Legislature.

That “super majority for any tax hike” concept, which Eyman milked repeatedly, eventually was voided by the state Supreme Court. It requires an amendment to the state’s constitution rules on how taxes become law, the court said.

Setting up a plebiscite for tax advice, however, apparently does not require any such amendment, although mandating that advice be followed – which would mean it isn’t really advice but a dictate – probably would.

On a party-line vote last month, the Senate passed a bill that would remove such tax advisory votes from the general election ballot. On Friday, the House State Government and Tribal Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on a similar bill but didn’t vote on it, will take up the measure.

Critics could say the stated intent of the Senate bill, which calls it an effort “to make the act of casting a ballot as simple as possible (and) will help promote free and fair elections,” is a bit disingenuous. Casting a ballot does not get appreciably more complex by subtracting measures to the ballot, and leaving them on does not make them less free or fair.

It’s true that the information provided in the Voter’s Pamphlet on the advisory measures, as required by the initiative, is not particularly helpful. Those requirements, after all, were initially concocted by people opposed to taxes in hopes of getting voters to turn thumbs down. If they had a theme song, it would have been Groucho Marx singing “Whatever it is, I’m Against it.”

Voters generally don’t need much of a push to say they don’t like taxes. Most of the measures that were endorsed over the years were those that fell on a relatively small segment of the population.

But senators are right that the advisory measures are confusing. Rarely does a general election pass without confused voters calling to ask what the Legislature will do with this advice. Often they have poured over their Voter’s Pamphlet and formed a well-reasoned opinion. When told that if history holds, the Legislature will do nothing – not revisit its vote if the results are overwhelmingly for repeal nor pat itself on its collective back if they are overwhelmingly for maintain – they often ask what’s the point.

Supporters of the advisory measures may argue the point is to let lawmakers know how voters feel. But few legislators are so divorced from reality as to think voters welcome tax increases. Many, however, feel enough people would accept those increases if they know the money is being spent on something they care about.

To that end, the bill would substitute advisory measures with a better explanation of the budgets the Legislature passes each year. It would create a website providing information on the legislation and its amendments; who voted for and against it; charts and graphs of where the money comes from and where it’s going; and links to the Legislative Evaluation and Accountability Program and Office of Financial Management for even more information.

The State Voter’s Pamphlet would also contain a page on how to access that website and a phone number to the Legislative Information Center.

That sounds like something the state should do anyway, regardless of whether the Legislature decides to stop giving voters a chance to offer advice lawmakers aren’t going to heed.

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